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The purposes of the arts: the words of government and the words of musicians


A panel of Federal MPs has given its view of the purpose and value of the arts. In its way, it’s interesting and positive.

But how do artists – in this case, musicians – see the purpose and value of music? In depth almost entirely missing from the MPs’ analysis.

This article quotes from the government document, which is a record of the beginning steps in setting up a cultural plan. It also quotes from articles written by musicians as contributions to the Music Trust’s INSIDE THE MUSICIAN series. They describe their musical worlds as they see them. Each one is distinctive but together they describe a passion and experience that is mostly absent from the government’s arguments.

Elsewhere in Music in Australia, Julian Meyrick and Justin O’Connor describe and assess the plan (Slippery Definitions and Alarming Silences…). This article is complementary. It contrasts the world views of the authors of the plan and in their own words, of the creators of the arts to which the citizenry is responding.

I was around from the early 1980’s, not so long after the Australia Council had been set up with the intention of giving government support to the development of Australian arts – including of course the creation and performance of music. Art music. Of excellence. Theatre, dance, literature, visual arts, of excellence. I don’t remember hearing the term “arts industry”. “Commercial arts” may have been an industry, partly motivated and sustained by profit and so not needing subsidy. Arts subsidy was to support Australian artists in the creation and presentation of excellent “serious” art which had little presence in the commercial world.

Of course, arts subsidy created subsidised artists who then had an interest in advocating for more subsidy. Although it had been by government initiative that their funding appeared, a belief soon enough took hold that governments were not swayed by arguments about the intrinsic value of the arts and the need for the arts in Australia to be more and better. Press and other reports of government business were focussed on things like economics, employment, exports, defence. Arts advocates decided that success could lie in presenting the arts as an important contributor to the economy, to employment, to exports, even though behind all that they believed that the real value of the arts was otherwise.

Forty years later, this report shows us that with government, the economic argument alas won – the value of the arts is presented as either “economic” or “non-economic” (i.e. beneficial as contributors to social good, mental health etc.) In a sense, the spectrum is economics, ranging from more of it to less. The achievement of excellence, a primary and intrinsic objective in virtually all previous national arts policy documents (e.g. the various iterations of the Australia Council Act), is barely a concept let alone a goal. It is mentioned only four times in the government document. (Commercially successful art by definition makes a profit, but need not be artistically “excellent” to do so.) Ironically, Commonwealth arts subsidy has declined.

The Chair of the Inquiry, Dr Anne Webster MP, contributed a Foreword. Some excerpts show the lie of the land:

“Australia’s artistic output gives enormous value to our society, enriching our lives and creating an economic boost from domestic and international spending. The arts is a broad industry, with a range of skills and talents making up a rich landscape of creative workers.

“Engaging with Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions has proven benefits for mental and physical health, social cohesion and community building, creative thinking, problem solving skills and more.

“Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions have an opportunity now to strengthen the resilience and sustainability of the industry in order to continue to showcase our cultural value to domestic and international audiences.

“Improvements to financial literacy and commercialisation opportunity awareness will allow artists to take control of their artistic careers and be ready to launch their creative work to both new and established audiences as we emerge from living with the pandemic…”

Some artists practising “popular” art forms become wealthy. A small number of artists in the subsidised arts do very well financially but for the great majority, money is mainly of interest to enable a secure living (and stop obsessing about money?) – and to make more art.

Dr Webster writes of the artistic challenge in terms that are familiar in government arts policy documents.

But how do artists describe what is important to them, what it is that they seek to do?

Readers will be familiar with the INSIDE THE MUSICIAN series that appears in each edition of Loudmouth, with the entire collection of some 70 statements available in Music in Australia.  Musicians are invited to describe their musical worlds as they see them. Nearly all of these articles can be seen here on the Music in Australia website.  But following below are some illuminating excerpts.

The value of the arts as seen by those who create them

MICHELLE LEONARD, Artistic Director, Moorambilla Voices

Michelle Leonard

Michelle has created the Moorambilla annual camp/festival program for the children of outback NSW, newly including (thanks to COVID), online teaching modules – dance, taiko, vocal, visual arts … “and of course my first love the human voice and choirs. That means universal access and more opportunity to engage with excellence for the region I love…. e-modules are part of my ultimate goal as a leader to create a rich artistic cultural base in their lives and allow for collegiality and transformation through artistic connection. It’s an antidote to what is happening online with loneliness and isolation…. a culture of ongoing excellence. The underlying assumption is that if you can experience this happening in an artistic framework then it can happen also in your work or your life….

“The children expect this now, and they are pushing themselves, which is an incredible thing to see. The adolescents in particular, who let’s be honest often take a lackadaisical approach to educational outcomes, take themselves for sectional rehearsals and demand excellence and collegiality within the ensemble. This is really remarkable as for many this is their ONLY opportunity in the course of a year to do so…

“In the end actually, we’re just about transcendent art and joy, connecting people to each other and to the language and world view of country – there is no downside for our country’s future in doing this.”


Elliott Gyger

… composing stretches my brain more than any other activity. The task is that much harder because the solution doesn’t yet exist: it has not only to be found, but made. The act of composing is always for me an aspirational one, and I think this is embodied in the character of the music I write: restless, intense, expressive, reaching for transcendence.

EMILY WURRAMARA, singer/songwriter

Emily Wurramara

We’re more than an “industry” we are a community, a family, a support for each other. 55 years ago we were classed as “Flora and Fauna”. We’ve come a long way but we still have long to go.
… I constantly feel inspired and motivated by this – it’s more to me than just singing then songwriting – it’s my ancestors, my intergenerational trauma, my future hopes, my future dreams, it’s my niece jumping off a boat and spearing a fish, it’s my mother painting my face with red ochre, it’s the birds I hear in the sunrise. To me this starts with listening, opening up more of your spirit and your soul to just listen.

So when you hear the likes of Baker Boy, Alice Skye or Thelma Plum, behold the ancient wisdom and strength from thousands of ancestors. This is more than “entertainment”, this is Healing.

BEN NORTHEY, Resident Conductor, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Ben Northey

It’s a timeless truth that human beings find immeasurable meaning, comfort and inspiration through the act of listening to the performance of music. I see it in their faces when I look to them after a special performance. I can often feel it in the atmosphere of a space in which great music is being performed. The mysterious shared experience of these sound waves can be mesmerising, transportive, unifying…

It’s only natural that we all strive for the highest artistic outcomes. This is nearly always the thing that most motivates and drives us. We have spent the vast majority of our lives working relentlessly at improvement and we often find our sense of self in our artistic achievements. It’s in our DNA. The ubiquitous concept of ‘artistic excellence’ is absolutely intrinsic to the worth of our endeavours, yet it should not be interpreted as the ultimate value of what we do. Where once I would meditate on the processes of music at the exclusion of all things, I’ve gradually transferred more of these mental energies to the idea of communion.

Communion is primarily the act of sharing thoughts and emotions, of experiencing intimate communication. Communion requires togetherness, it necessitates contact. It is aided by artistic excellence, but ultimately transcends it. I have come to the conclusion that this idea of communion with listeners, with our audiences, should be at the front of our minds.


Dr Brydie-Leigh Bartleet

Beyond the individual, music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope. It crosses cultural divides and provides a strengths-based space to meet through shared passions and interests.

I believe music can indeed change the world. For a start, no human culture on earth has ever lived without it. It is an ever-present and all-pervasive part of our lives… Throughout time it has always been in flux, changing in response to the world and in turn changing the world.

Music is a bodily thing. It is something you can experience in your bones and organs. I learnt this by singing to my premature babies who were hooked up to intensive care monitors for 2½ months – I learnt how my singing could slow their heartbeats and stabilise their oxygen saturation levels. When you sing your body releases oxytocin as well as endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. For a person suffering from something like chronic pain, this provides a shot of natural morphine.

Beyond the individual, music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope. It crosses cultural divides and provides a strengths-based space to meet through shared passions and interests.

RILEY LEE, shakuhachi player

Riley Lee

[There is] a genre of shakuhachi music called honkyoku (本曲literally “main pieces” or “original pieces”). My shakuhachi teachers spent nearly all their time attempting to teach me these ‘original’ piecesPlaying honkyoku continues to take up most of my own practice. I emphasise these venerated pieces more than any others when teaching my own students. Shakuhachi honkyoku are meditative and meditations. Over the last four or five centuries, they have been created, transmitted and performed largely in the context of Zen Buddhism…

Breath is paramount in playing the shakuhachi. An understanding of how I breathe while playing honkyoku, and why I do so, helps to illustrate the interrelation between music and meditation. It also points to differences between honkyoku and other types of music.

The single most important component of any honkyoku is the phrase… Nearly all phrases are played in one breath. A single breath is thought of as having four distinct parts: 1) inhalation, 2) transition, 3) exhalation, and 4) transition. One breath is like a single 24-hour cycle: daytime—dusk—night time—dawn, complete in itself yet part of larger units of time, like a week, year or decade.

SIMON BARKER, drummer, composer

Simon Barker

In 2016, I felt an urge to develop an alternative vocabulary for the drum set, so as to produce a series of drum chants in solidarity with communities facing upheaval due to climate change (primarily Kiribati and the Marshall Islands), and in support of the international climate research community. The idea would be to create a rhythmic/movement language from scratch, with no stylistic or cultural influence of any kind, and see what happens. Also, at that time, I wanted the sonic parameters of the music to be limited to a wooden sound (log drum), a high tom tom, and a bass drum.

These kinds of developmental periods can take a significant amount of time as, for me, ideas are only “heard” once they are played, which, in some cases, can take many months of practice to embody just a few seconds of new material. During the developmental period associated with this project, I created a layered rhythmic phrase that featured a tiny section of tangled patterning that I hadn’t encountered before, and something in the feeling of this rhythmic shape activated a physical response that felt new to me. In this little block of interweaving rhythm, I found a pathway to the creation of a personal rhythmic/sticking language that I’ve named “coiling”, the “coils” being blocks of tangled rhythmic stuff that can be cobbled together to form phrases, chants, and material for improvisation.

MANDY STEFANAKIS, musician, composer, writer, teacher, lecturer

Mandy Stefanakis

[Mandy had shortly before writing this piece lost a close family member. She chose to attend a solo piano concert by Prince, who was visiting Australia. After he arrived here, Prince heard that a former muse has just died, but chooses to perform.]

So there it was, a conduit to my own sense of loss. I had not anticipated this part of the narrative and wondered both how on earth he had walked on stage and how we could endure the performance together. But of course music transports, and so it was. He extemporised his way around every black and white key and the crevices between with such finesse, such audacity, such charisma, such ease, inhabiting the musician’s mind as it turned off all but that which was necessary to keep the music in play. A seasoned listener, I was shocked by his incredible musicianship. Awe and loss make strange bedfellows, but then, most couplings do.

He’d left the stage. I found it hard to turn my back and face instead a remonstrating exit sign – like breaking the filament.

It’s strange how some people understand the grief you feel for someone you’ve never met more empathetically than they comprehend your sense of loss for family, mess and all, but so it seemed in the aftermath of Prince’s death two months after this encounter. It’s the music of course. It’s always there, mortality no barrier, this wondrous connection wrought through the touching of objects with enough force to cause vibration. How extraordinary that a shaping of them can render such a tenacious grip on all the molecules of one’s being. I really get musicians. I get the succour from the sound thing.

GORDON KERRY, composer, writer

Gordon Kerry

True conservatism, of the Burkean kind, would accept the need for the constant refreshment of culture, from within and without, and of its importance to the polity as a whole. Sadly, self-identifying conservatism across the western world seems indifferent, or actively hostile, to that ‘enormous and unsuspected presence’ that is our shared past – read the comments under any discussion of arts funding in the Murdoch press; and we have seen the results of disastrous cultural policy in this country in recent times where the canon is fetishised as an untouchable holy relic.

I am sick to death of the term ‘culture war’, but much of the western polity is in the midst of an upheaval characterised by anger at ‘elites’, tribalism and fear: vide Nigel Farage, Marine le Pen, or Donald Trump. What strikes me though, is that the people rallying in support of such figures and ‘our way of life’ frequently seem disengaged from or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, have been deprived of, the very culture which they claim is theirs, and it makes me wonder what it is they are defending.

JACK SYMONDS, Artistic Director, Sydney Chamber Opera, composer, producer, conductor, pianist

Jack Symonds

When I decided we would produce O Mensch! [a song cycle by Pascal Dusapin], I could think of no two people with whom I would rather share this journey than the gifted singing actor Mitchell Riley and the director Sarah Giles, whose penetrating vision had previously illuminated an inordinately complex double bill for us of George Benjamin and György Kurtág. I had conducted and played piano with Mitch on many occasions, and we just knew we could achieve the level of musical and intellectual coordination required by Dusapin. The months preparing the music and the weeks of staging were a complete joy, which for me epitomised why I love making music. The uncovering of endless detail which forces the brain down more and more paths it never would have thought possible produces its own kind of euphoria. The ability to focus on a single, ephemeral sound and derive a world of meaning that can speak to an audience is something so unique that I can’t not do it, day in, day out. Every note, phrase and song in this piece is so laden with information yet so open to interpretation that shaping it into a coherent whole must be done with a microsurgeon’s precision.

Gradually, text turned into sound, birthing stage action which in turn generated a stunning lighting installation by Katie Sfetkidis to bring the whole work together. Observing Dusapin rehearsing his own music and also having composition lessons with him gave me an excellent insight into his style and priorities, and the finished Sydney Chamber Opera staging of O Mensch! is one of my personal favourites of all the performances in which I’ve been privileged to take part.


I know too many artists who just grew a hard shell rather than risking something; insulated from criticism yet probably stifling their deepest artistic desires. I despair at the parochial anti-intellectualism and fear of expression I see all around us in every sphere of life. Please let’s try and keep art our one refuge for risk, for meaningful criticism and for endless complexity of expression.

CHRIS CODY, jazz performer, composer

Chris Cody

When words fail, music speaks. What I will say is that music makes me laugh and makes me cry. Music makes me want to believe that everything will be all right, that there is love, and beauty and meaning in this cynical, cruel world. Since I was little, music has made me feel both different but also at one with the world, with life. The before and after. Music makes sense out of the disorder. It makes life plausible. It transports me and affirms me, it redeems my life. In music, I am.

I’ve just read the latest news in Australia – further cutbacks to studying arts and humanities, the cost of an arts degree will more than double, while the ABC has had its budget slashed further. More music programs are cancelled that support not only Australian artists but bring the music and ideas of the whole world to us. What’s going on? Can the government not see the importance of the arts, understand what we understand? Do they not share in the wisdom, truth and beauty of music? Doesn’t everyone know that playing, writing or just listening to music reminds us of the truth we so easily stray from, of what is really important in life and death?

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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